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Let’s talk about something that has been kept in the dark for far too long. To be specific, 100 years is too long. On May 31st, 1921, one of the most horrific incidents of racial violence occurred in American history. This is the Tulsa Massacre.
The Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma was one of the first communities in the United States that thrived with Black entrepreneurial businesses. The Greenwood District was founded by descendants of African American slaves and earned itself a reputation as the Black Wall Street of America. It was a place of safety—a refuge distanced from Jim Crow era practices.
On May 30th, 1921, a nineteen-year-old Black Shoemaker by the name of Dick Rowland tripped and fell in an elevator, his hand accidentally caught the shoulder of seventeen-year-old White operator, Sarah Page, who screamed when it happened. This triggered police intervention. The next day, Page refused to press charges but the rest of the town already made their minds up. The planned lynching of Rowland was detailed in their latest issue of the Tulsa Tribune titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In Elevator.”
That night, a mob of white supremacists transformed Greenwood from a place called home to a place of true horror. In a matter of a few hours, 35 square blocks of the vibrant Black community were turned to ash, means of destruction being bombs, guns, and arson. About 300 people were killed and over 1,000 homes and businesses were looted, set on fire or were flat out destroyed.
Now you would normally suspect that this event would be all over the papers and that news would have traveled across America, but this was 1921. A time where America was still abiding by segregation laws and when racism wasn’t as coded as it is today. A lot of uncomfortable truths were erased and for the longest time, the massacre itself received hardly any mentions in newspapers, textbooks, and civil/governmental discourse.
In 1997, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed to investigate the silence. Four years later, an official report was released. “The massacre was actively covered up in the white community in Tulsa for nearly a half-century,” said Scott Ellsworth, a professor of Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan and author of “The GroundBreaking” about the Tulsa massacre. He explained that the two Tulsa white newspapers went on for decades without mentioning the massacre. Researchers who would try to do work on this as late as the early 1970s had their lives and had their career threatened.” Additionally, survivors felt a sort’ve inability to open up. For some, the event remained too traumatic for survivors that they wished not to burden their friends and family with the horrifying imagery.
Soon, photographs were discovered and the truth came out. These photographs became the material that the Tulsa Race Riot Commission used to study the massacre and they eventually ended up in the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum in 2001. Pictures include White people standing over cold dead African Americans, victims and their graphic injuries from the massacre recovering in hospitals, smoke covering the Tulsa sky, bodies under the rubble, and more.
The first concrete tracing of the Tulsa Massacre appeared in a 2000 edition of an Oklahoma public school curriculum. Eventually, a digital collection of photographs was made available for people to view online, which is when it started to attract more attention. Soon enough, people discovered that Tulsa wasn’t the only place where this sort of attack occurred. “We estimate that there were upwards of 100 massacres that took place between the end of the Civil War and the 1940s,” says William Darity Jr., a Duke University economist who co-authored “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” with writer and folklorist A. Kirsten Mullen. “And they take place North and South, East and West.”
Today, there are only a few Black businesses on the single remaining block of the Greenwood District.
The three remaining survivors of the massacre appeared and spoke before a congressional committee. “I still see black bodies lining the streets, I still see black businesses being burned, I hear the screams. Our country may forget this history, but I will not, the survivors will not and our descendants will not” says Viola Fletcher. “We aren’t just black and white pictures on a screen, we are flesh and blood,” says Hughes Van Ellis. “I have survived to tell this story. I believe I am still here to share it with you” says Lessie Evelyn Beningfield Randle.
This year, the Tulsa Oklahoma City Council has finally announced a reparations resolution in response to the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.
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Deggans, Eric. “3 Documentaries You Should Watch About The Tulsa Race Massacre.” NPR, NPR, 30 May 2021, http://www.npr.org/2021/05/30/1000923192/3-documentaries-you-should-watch-about-the-tulsa-race-massacre.
History.com Editors. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 Mar. 2018, http://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre.
“’I Hear the Screams’: Tulsa Massacre Survivors Speak Out.” MSNBC, NBCUniversal News Group, 31 May 2021, http://www.msnbc.com/deadline-white-house/watch/-i-hear-the-screams-tulsa-massacre-survivors-speak-out-114099781842.
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